BetteBack January 28, 2000: “Isn’t She Great,” played in steamroller-diva style by Bette Midler

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
January 28, 2000 | Covert, Colin


Didn’t she grate? What the midi skirt was to fashion, what the Village People were to music, what Rod McKuen was to verse, Jacqueline Susann‘s trashy potboilers were to the American novel: inexplicable relics of the 1970s whose main entertainment value today is provoking a chuckle at garage sales.

Susann chronicled the lives of pill-popping, bed-hopping, scenery-gnawing actresses and models in such classics as “Valley of the Dolls,” “The Love Machine” and “Once is Not Enough.” Now she’s back as the heroine of a camp biopic, “Isn’t She Great,” played in steamroller-diva style by Bette Midler.

The question is, why? Susann’s popularity was phenomenal but short-lived. Her books were out of print for 15 years before Grove Press reissued “Valley” in 1997 to no great success. If there’s a groundswell of nostalgia for her brand of dirty dish, it’s happening beneath my radar screen. “Isn’t She Great,” whose idea of a belly laugh is costuming John Cleese in a tangerine Nehru jacket, isn’t likely to spark a revival.

It’s a standard showbiz climb-to-the-top story, except this time the biz is publishing. When we meet Jackie, she’s already halfway over the hill, with her dreams of glory as an actress all but abandoned. Desperate for “mass love,” she’s convinced that the world is a movie she’s starring in, with everyone else a supporting player. Jackie finds her perfect love and partner in Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane), a nebbishy publicist who inexplicably considers her irresistible. He pledges to make the world love her as he does. When a guest spot on TV quiz show and an embroidery commercial don’t do the trick, he has a brainstorm. Jackie could write a book. How hard could that be?

Figuring that “talent isn’t everything,” Jackie taps out a book about what she knows: shopping, sex and celebrities. It’s rejected by every house in the Ivy League publishing establishment, but championed by Henry Marcus (Cleese) when – prepare to wince – his cleaning lady recommends the manuscript. The eternally prim David Hyde Pierce plays Niles Crane – actually the character is named Michael Hastings, but he’s still playing Niles Crane – the buttoned-down editor assigned to make the book publishable. He, too, falls victim to her audacious personality. She promotes the book like no book has been sold before, making a whistle-stop tour of the nation’s bookstores and plugging it relentlessly on talk shows. Soon she has the fame she’s craved, but Irving feels superfluous and personal problems plague the couple.

This could be touching, but Paul Rudnick’s script turns every challenge Susann faced into a cloying, sympathy-grabbing maneuver for his heroine. “Isn’t She Great” presents itself as a demented female-empowerment story, asking us to admire its heroine not despite her garish taste, bulldozer chutzpah and microscopic talent, but precisely because of them. We little people in the audience will sympathize with her, the logic runs, because she’s our surrogate, a plucky come-from-behind scrapper striking blows for the common folk. Sure, she dripped jewelry and hobnobbed with Onassis, but underneath she was still a girl from Brooklyn.

Well, thanks but no thanks. Susann, may she rest in peace, was the spiritual mother of some of the most depressing trends in pop culture, from the dumbing down of the publishing industry to the rise of the gossip industry. She’s a ripe figure for parody, but not one for a fawning life story. From its opening titles, parodying tawdry book-cover art, to its tacky final eulogy, “Isn’t She Great” is likely to aggravate all but the most camp-starved moviegoers.


Movie rating: Two out of four stars

The setup: Trashy novelist Jacqueline Susann shakes up the ivory tower publishing world.

What works: Authentically loathsome 1970s clothes and decor.

What doesn’t: Bette Midler doesn’t resemble the slender, sickly Susann; she looks like she’s bulking up to do “The Linda Tripp Story.”

Great line: Her husband’s enthusiasm for Susann’s manuscript: “It’s like `Gone With the Wind.’ Only filthy.”

Rating: R for language.

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